Many art historians have deemed comics to be amongst the lowest form of art or simply not art at all. However, by turning comics away from the world of high art, literature and academic study, there are many opportunities for learning and creativity that are missed. Through integrating a close reading of WOW Comics issue 3, into a history of why comics aren’t considered art, how comics have similar movements to art history, the hybrid nature of comics and Roy Lichtenstein’s use of comics for creativity, I will raise the question as to why comics aren’t considered art and what opportunities are missed as literary and artistic thinkers by discluding comics from our discourses and serious history.
Comics Aren’t Art – Critics and Art History
In Bart Beaty’s book “Comics versus Art”, Beaty raises a point about Clement Greenberg’s critical approach to comics. Greenberg is a famous modernist art critic and Beaty summarizes his critique of comics by saying that “comics as among the lowest forms of debases and industrialized pseudo-culture” (20). Beaty goes on to explain that similar to many art critics’ problems with new movements in art history, comics are being disregarded in the same way. Beaty highlights that critics see comics as a medium that does not evolve from any practices in art that came priory to it (20-21).
With this understanding of how comics have been perceived throughout art history, Beaty raises an argument towards the way people look at comics as destructive. Rather than seeing comics as literature or art, Beaty argues that comics should be understood as a hybrid art form (21). A hybrid art form, when concerning comics, is the working relationship of images and text that make up the whole of any comic (Witek 34). With understanding that hybrid art forms are created by the merging of multiple different inspirations, ideas and mediums, it makes them extremely hard to categories. It is important to enter the discussion of comics by keeping in mind their hybrid nature. Within the hybrid form that comics present themselves, it is also important to remember that, unlike other forms of high art or literature, comics are printed cheaply and by masses.
However, by keeping the nature of comics in mind their placement in the world of literature and art becomes extremely important. With the marrying of both text and images, comics form the delicate line between the world of visual and literary arts. By focusing on the ideas that are open for expression through the hybrid nature of comics, their less academic appearance becomes irrelevant. Diving into the hybrid nature of comics, the printing process and consumer quality that fills up most of WOW Comics and many other comics coming out of World War One, will become less important. While their value in history, their relationship between visual and literary qualities, and the overall wealth acquired from looking at comics as art will become apparent.
Art and History – World History and Movements Within Comics
When looking at comics as art, it is important to document that most comics that are being created surrounding a war, WOW Comics included, are almost always focused on the war occurring. With this recurrence of war within comic, a connection can be made between the goals of many famous painters and writers that include war in their works of art. This framework of seeing comics like other works of art, as a way to document history and/or movements in a society, help us to understand their artistic and historic value.
In Sabin Roger’s book Comics, Comix, & Graphic Novels, there is an outline of the movements in comics that occurred to fill a new motif. Here Roger describes action comics and their newly found way of artistic expression: “the name of the game was bold, figurative art with strong colours. In terms of content, the emphasis was again on simplicity: the heroic derring-do found in the pulps was perfect” (57). This shows how a movement within a comic books changes how the artists met new demands in their medium. This happens in action and hero comics, like WOW Comics where there is a demanded to draw more attention onto the hero and their call to action. This shift in relation to motif and visual representation proves that, like many other movements in art history, artist within comics are looking at past ways of dealing with medium and remodeling it to fit the ideas they want to share.
This demand for comic book artists to shape their work to fit the story line of action heroes, is also a challenge that they faced when drawing comics for World War One. Sabin Roger explains that in Britain, the First World War created a new demand for artistic representation within comics. “Artistically speaking, the genre made new demands on comics (54). Invariably, the style would have to be ‘realistic’ in order to carry the story, and this required a new attention to detail”(57). What Rogers speaks to in this quote, is not only the adaptation the comic must undergo to match the subject matter, but the hybrid relationship that all comics carry. The hybrid relationship is the marriage of the realistic images needed to coincide within the new storyline of World War One.
Showing that by understanding the comics’ way of shaping the artists format to match the subject matter and working between the relationship of imagery and subject to convey a coherent message reveals that comics should be recognized in art history.This hybrid relationship of the marriage between a comics media and visual representation is shown
in WOW Comics Issue 3. Shown in figure 1 on page 9 of “Dart Daring’s” action packed fight, the medium is being used to convey meaning. The viewer’s eyes automatically go to the middle panel, where the gutters are being used to draw tension onto to Dart’s relentless fight. This overt feeling of tension being placed on the main character is drawn into full force by the use of medium to convey a message.
The Hybrid – Scout McCloud and the Lines between Art and Comics
While understanding the complex hybrid nature of art, it is important to look into Scott McCloud’s rich understanding of the comic’s place within high art. McCloud explains that movements in art, like Modernism, Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism, made their way into being ‘art’ the same way comics did – by the balance of “appearance and meaning”. While comics have a hybrid balance of words and images, they take on the birth that many famous works in art history have (144-149). In further relation to the language in art and comics, McCloud expands on the expressionist use of line in relation to comics. McCloud explains that late nineteenth century artists such as Much and Van Gogh, worked with line as a way to express deep meaning, meaning that can also be found in comics (122-125). Although the comics use of line might not be as vibrant as one of Van Gogh’s night skies, it does mean that comics lack expression within their use of line or colour. It might mean that the comic is expressing something more calm and simple.
This use of line as expression can also be found in WOW Comics Issue 3, when “Dart Daring” is show in a three piece triangular panel in the first section of his spread. Seen in figure 2, this early introduction to Dart is important as it requires the viewer to see him as an important character in their first encounter. Line is used here, like the expressionist, to render tremendous meaning. In its most obvious way the three panels are broken up by harsh lines, placing Dart in an altarpiece of panels. In panel one the reader makes their way from the horizontal lined waves that are forced into corners, arriving at Dart creating a line with his body, leaning towards the next panel. As he looks onto himself in panel two, he guides the viewer’s eyes. While the last panel uses line to create literal distance and give Dart, the only rounded figure in the panel, a chance to break free from the daunting lines of the boat and the adventure that lies ahead.
By recognizing how comics use line in a subconscious way, it can become clear how they hold as much meaning in relation to the way famous artist use line. Continuing with McCloud’s comparison of high art to comics, he explains that “the father of the modern comic in many ways is Rodolphe Topffer” (120), revealing that his cartooning and use of panel explores a combination of pictures and words. This made him a contributor to the understanding of comics. According to McCloud, Topffer was a master and creator of a form that was “both and neither” text and image (122). All of these recurring ideas that flow between high art and comics should be taken into consideration when understanding that these two art forms function similarly and should be treated as such.
Pop Art – Roy Lichtenstein, High Art and Comics for Creativity
When you combine high art and comics, you get Roy Lichtenstein, “being one of the best known pop artists of the 1960’s to use comics and cartoons as source material for their work” (Greenville 228). In order to understand the comics place in high art and academia, it is vital to understand how Lichtenstein took hold of the medium for an artist message. By diving into Lichtenstein’s goal of using comics in his art, we can come to a conclusion on why we should learn from Lichtenstein and use comics for creativity.
In Bruce Greenville’s book KRAZY! Roy Lichtenstein’s rendering of the comic is presented in full force, by Greenville saying that “Lichtenstein’s genius lay(s) in his ability to grasp the most compelling elements of comic composition and bring them forward for scrutiny”(Greenville 228). This quote acknowledges Lichtenstein’s tribute to comics. He also used comics to his advantage by working with a strong understand of the new visual culture that was emerging at the time. He used a medium as a vessel to express his artistic message (288), as many great artist of the past have. This use of medium in relation to message within high art is an idea that takes place in comics as well. In Rublowsky’s book Pop Art, he highlights Lichtenstein’s interest in comics and their mechanical creator, the separation within the comics that comes from the lack of viewing the artist’s hand (1-2). Here, there is specific definition of what Lichtenstein found so intriguing about comics.
Continuing with a greater understanding of what Roy Lichtenstein was trying to achieve by using comics as a medium, it becomes clear that we should be following in his footsteps and use comics for our own artistic and literary expression. In Michael Lobel’s book Image Duplicator, there is an explanation of how art historians disapproval of Lichtenstein’s work allows for a deeper insight into the academic use of comics. The explanation states, “I think it is fair to say that art history as a discipline has tended to view realist painting of any period as if they were nothing more than accurate transcriptions of reality outside themselves” (Lobel 14). Lobel expands by using an art historians critic of Liechtenstein to his advantage saying, “I want to treat Fried’s components in much the same way Lichtenstein treated printed images: I will appropriate and strategically reuse them for my own purpose” (Lobel 15). By combining Lichtenstein’s use of comics for an artistic message and Lobel’s tactical way of turning art historians critique of Liechtenstein to fit his project, it is clear that the same should be done with comics. By looking at comics as artistic expression or a vessel in which artists (like Lichtenstein) can be inspired, their space within art history and academic study allows for more opportunities of creativity and learning.
The evidence that comics belong in academic and creative discourse is overwhelming. The risk in not including this hybrid art form that is comics into the world of art and literary history allows for current gaps to form in creativity and learning. By understanding a critical reading of WOW Comics issue 3, the historical view of comics as ‘false art’, how comics work within movements similar to art history, the hybrid art of comics and the inspiring way in which Roy Lichtenstein’s uses comics for creativity, academic and creative thinkers must be called to re-evaluate comics as valuable components of our past and future history.
Legault, E.T. “Dart Daring”. WOW Comics,Volume 1, No. 3, December 1941, p. 2-9. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art . University of Toronto Press, 2012. Toronto, Canada.
Greenville, Bruce, et al. KRAZY!: The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art. Vancouver Art Gallery,University of California Press, 2008. Vancouver, B.C.
Lobel, Michael. Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art. Yale University Press, 2002. New Haven.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. Harper Perennial 1994. 1st edition. New York, N.Y.
Rublowsky, John and Ken Heyman. Pop Art. Basic Books, 1965. New York, N.Y.
Sabin, Roger. Comics, Comix, & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art. Phaidon Press Limited, 1996. London.
Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.